Peter Kafka

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Does Rupert Murdoch Have Kindle Envy? News Corp. Mulls an E-Book Reader Investment.

rupert-murdochHere’s yet another fan of the Kindle, Amazon’s (AMZN) much-hyped e-book reader: News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch, who likes the device enough that he’s considering investing in a Kindle rival.

At a Q&A at the cable industry’s annual show today, Murdoch waxed on about the Kindle’s qualities, then made a reference to investing in a machine that could be even more attractive–one that boasted a large, full-color screen. I was covering the event live [original story below], and these are my notes from the relevant part of his chat. Please bear in mind that this is a very rough paraphrase, from notes I was taking in real time:

We need new models. The first inkling of it is the Kindle. You can get the whole paper there. And you can get the whole of The Wall Street Journal on your BlackBerry. We’re investing in a new device that has a bigger screen, four-color, and you can get everything there. [Did I just hear that correctly?]

After the event, I checked in with a News Corp. spokesperson, who confirmed that I hadn’t been hallucinating: News Corp. is indeed in “exploratory” talks about making an investment in a company working on e-reader technologies.

Who might that be? No guidance there. Plastic Logic, based in Mountain View, Calif., has been working on a reader with a 8.5 by 11-inch screen for several years. But that company has already raised $200 million from investors, including Intel (INTC) and Oak Investment Partners. And its device, scheduled to hit the market in 2010, will feature a black-and-white screen that uses the same E Ink technology that the Kindle and Sony’s (SNE) Reader use.

Another option: Rival publisher Hearst, which has plans for its own Kindle. But Hearst’s unnamed reader will initially be a black-and-white affair as well.

Anyone have any other possibilities? You can reach me directly at Or if you want to be completely anonymous, which is understandable but less useful to me (I won’t have any way of reaching you for follow-up) you can use the blind tip box here.

This year’s cable show seems lightly attended, but folks are are buzzing here about Bob Iger’s comments this morning, where the Disney (DIS) CEO alternately tried to placate and challenge the industry with his online plans. I’ve got high hopes for this one, too, a keynote speech from News Corp.’s (NWS) Rupert Murdoch, who will then take a seat and chat with three fellow CEOs: Time Warner’s (TWX) Jeff Bewkes, Viacom’s (VIA) Philippe Dauman, and Liberty Global’s Michael Fries.

Moderating the discussion: Murdoch employee Neil Cavuto, who does anchor work at both Fox News and Fox Business (and since this Web site is owned by Dow Jones, I’m a Murdoch employee, too).

I’ll be covering the Q&A live, which means that any text you read below is an on-the-fly attempt to paraphrase the speakers on stage–unless it’s in quotes, which represent my best attempt to get the words verbatim.

Starts with Q&A with Murdoch.
NC: Are things getting better?
RM: I think the long-term situation is still extremely dangerous. I’m pessimistic because every family is poorer and they’re going to save more and spend less. Even more dangerous if the government throws too much money at the problem:

NC: What if you’re wrong?
RM: “I pray I am”

NC: Markets are up in reaction to G20 plan. Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about (re too much spending from Congress, etc.)
RM: I’ve never seen any money from the World Bank that’s done much good. Maybe the IMF should be recapitalized. But it doesn’t matter, because none of the money will come back to the U.S. “I would say it’s a bear market still. We’re not going back to the old levels anytime soon. We’re two or three years away.”

NC: What about the economy?
RM: May get better in a year. “I walk around the streets of New York, and all I see is “to let” signs everywhere.” Space we rented for $80 a foot on Sixth Avenue is now $60 a square foot. On our business in general: Advertising is flowing out of the big networks, but our cable advertising is up. “They’re in good shape, and we’re very happy to have a number of them.”

NC: They are rioting in London against capitalism “they’re rioting against success…they don’t like rich people. Are you offended?”
RM: No. There’s only about 4,000 of them. “Makes good television, someone with blood on their face…but it’s greatly overstated.” I have had worse problems when I had strikes 20 years ago.

NC: So you don’t buy this sort of “new global class warfare.”
RM: It’s very dangerous. “We all know in the last two or three years there have been notable headline-grabbing excesses, in this country and in Europe, despite what the Europeans are saying, and we’re paying for that.” But I don’t think we’re going to have class warfare. “We do need an SEC that’s awake,” in part so we don’t have work with the French and their regulators.

NC: Everyone’s piling on the U.S. What does that mean for the U.S.?
RM: I don’t care what the French say. “But when the Chinese speak, I pay some notice.” The Chinese don’t want us in an inflationary situation, or they won’t lend us money.

NC: President Obama talked about working with the rest of the world. Is Washington saying that “we are this big global powerhouse together”?
RM: It’s very nice for the President to say that, but I don’t think Bush ever did that. He was talking to world leaders every day. He wasn’t as articulate about it as Obama. But “we’re the big boy on the block” so naturally people are jealous, but we better remain “damned sure” that we remain the big boy.

NC: But we owe everyone lots of money.
RM: That’s what worries me. I worry that we’re going to start printing lots of money, we’ll have runaway inflation.

NC: You just said Obama is brilliant. Your companies “have a reputation for being slightly more conservative than he is.”
RM: “We’re fair and balanced.”
NC: “Absolutely.”
RM: The monolithic liberal press complains when they don’t get a corner of the world; “if they want to smear you, or me, that’s fine.” Re Obama: “I’ve had a couple of very charming conversations with him.” He talks about how pragmatic he is. “We’ll see.” So far, a couple of little tests have been disappointing. With regard to Teamsters and school vouchers in Washington.

NC: So you’re saying he has a reputation for being pragmatic, but he isn’t. And he doesn’t seem to like Wall Street either.
RM: “That’s putting it too strongly” I think it offends him to see people making $200 million dollars a year, or whatever it is.

NC: Taxes are going up for the wealthy.
RM: Yes. So “we’ll go live in Texas.” It’s serious. a 60 percent tax rate is going up. Not just the federal taxes, but states, and counties. My Long Island house “is not very big at all” but what Nassau charges for taxes is enormous. The bill has gone up from $3,000 to $7,000 or $8,000. “I’m trying to sell my house.”

NC: You’re a newspaper guy. Newspapers as a physical product are dying. San Francisco may not have a paper at all soon. What do you think of that?
RM: “It’s sad. But let’s face it. San Francisco is a pretty small area. And there’s some pretty good papers in that area,” and they’re not folding. “People are getting used to getting everything on the net for nothing. That’s going to have to change.” Take the New York Times. No matter what you’re going to say about it, it has a very very good Web site. But it’s never going to make enough money to cover what it’s losing on the print side. The question is: “Should we be allowing Google to steal all our copyrights? Just take them? Not just Google but all the aggregators? Yahoo? And I feel that if you have a brand that’s strong enough, like the New York Times, they should be able to go to Google and say ‘no.'” So when you go to search on Google, it doesn’t show up. But there’s only 10 or 15 of those, probably.

We need new models. The first inkling of it is the Kindle. You can get the whole paper there. And you can get the whole of The Wall Street Journal on your BlackBerry. We’re investing in a new device that has a bigger screen, four-color, and you can get everything there. [Did I just hear that correctly?]

[Time to bring on the other panelists]

PD: “If I may, I’d just like to say bon jour to Rupert.”

NC: Philippe Dauman, you said you’re seeing some positivity in your business. Where?

PD: Theater sales are healthy. Cable is OK. Saw some deterioration in ad sales, but in last few weeks, we’re seeing some plateauing. On the kids’ cable channel upfront, we’re starting to do well. “There are some advertisers that are increasing their spend. They’re healthy, and they see an opportunity to expand market share. Advertising works, even for banks.”

Jeff Bewkes: We’re pretty much seeing the same thing. Advertising for print is down, cable is very strong. AOL, “not so strong.” The problem is that outside the U.S., growth rates have come down, and financial problems are much worse. “But I think it’s short-term” so we’re still investing. Invested in Eastern Europe.

Michael Fries: We’re doing OK, too. Cable isn’t immune, but we’re selling products people need. Our Eastern European markets aren’t doing great, but fundamentally we’re still growing. We’re still growing through this. Since we’re not ad-supported, we’re not having down markets or down quarters. In some of our markets, there will be some consolidation, and we can get some of our competitors out of the way.

[Missed a section on broadband and infrastructure outside the U.S. Apologies]

NC: You have great content but on the Web, but many people don’t pay for it. What can you do about that? Do you have to do deals with the likes of Hulu, and get pennies on the dollar instead of giving it away?

PD: There’s a middle ground we’re trying to follow. Consumer behavior changes, revenue models have to change, too. We put a lot of content on line, we also do a lot “windowing.” Some content like news goes online right away, and the “Daily Show.” That’s on Hulu. But you do get incremental monetization “if you do it right.” “Daily Show” ratings are up since we went on Hulu. We have to experiment and see what we can do to enhance the experience.

MF: Content doesn’t follow eyeballs. Content follows money. Content providers want first and foremost to get paid. Consumers want random access to content. They want high-quality content. I like the idea [i.e., to put all their stuff online] that Time Warner and Comcast is promoting “is a no-brainer.” Online now has a negligible impact on TV, so right now it’s something we can get a hold off.

RM: It varies from show to show. A good show can get improved ratings over time, via the DVR. Like “24.” A lot of stuff that’s DVR’d is played that evening. “There’s no loyalty to audiences at all. There’s loyalty to certain shows.”

NC: Journalists are moving to the Web, but they’re not going to get paid as much on the Web [yup]. Point being: Aren’t authors and artists who produce work for the Web, or the Kindle, going to get screwed?

PD: No. You can charge lower prices but you have lower costs. If you have a secure download-to-own business, you can protect revenues for everyone.

NC: But generally, don’t all content creators have to realize that their content is worth less?

JB: This is the cable convention. Rupert’s right about not having loyalty to broadcast networks. But there is, or at least different identities, on cable. The broadcast business has its challenges, as we know. But the cable channels have the most value and the most future….This industry can now deliver all our great stuff on broadband, and over mobile. [Rambling here but basically Bewkes is repitching his “TV everywhere” idea] “We’re not trying to make the Internet not free. We’re just saying that if you use it for free, you ought to get what you have in your home….Look how slow we’re being. We’re all being too slow to put all these channels and put them broadband….We ought to do it, and we ought to do it now….Put it on the Hulus and YouTubes if you need too, but only if people are subscribing to the cable plans. You can’t just blow up the financial structure….We ought to be taking the advertising model from cable networks and moving it over to broadband.”

NC: That isn’t what I was asking about. What about us content creators?

PD: “We treat creators of content really well.”

JB: “Yeah.”

PD: Back to Bewkes’s plan. People get the advertising model.

RM: People are used to the free content being free, and “the fact is that nobody’s making money with the free content on the Web, except for search.” We’ve got to find a way to charge.

MF: This notion that we’ll figure out how to pay for something, someday, is wrong. There’s value in aggregators and editors, and people go to Fox News because they know what they’re getting. “We have a generation below this lost generation that we can capture and retain, if this industry does it right.”

JB: Hey, want to see what that looks like? [Now it’s time for Bewkes to run a promo, literally for HBO. “HBO GO.” The “coolest way to watch HBO on your computer….If you have the key, it’s free.” I am assuming that this is a mock ad for a product that Bewkes would like to exist–HBO OnDemand, online.

JB: I apologize for running a commercial.

PD: That works well for pay cable channels like HBO and Showtime and our new channel. Not sure about other channels.

NC: Let’s say our recession/depression lingers for a while “a real protracted type of a deal.” What then for entertainment?

JB: It will hold up.

NC: What about advertising?

JB: Less.

PD: It will be slow, but we’ll get through it. We have to plan for the possibility that it will be bad for a long time. You spend less, you have to be careful about not spending on things that aren’t you core brands, and acquisitions, and that can be self-defeating. We’re dependent on Washington in some ways, but what we really need are the credit markets to work again.

MF: Bingo.

NC: How has recession affected you personally? Do you change the way you display your wealth, or your own personal behavior?

JB: [Sitting next to Murdoch] “I tend to sit next to people who are richer than me.”

PD: Hotel managers are beside themselves because no one has business meetings, and then they have to fire working class people. But I think this “populist surge” about abuses will pass. “We’re going through an extreme period, and this is a country that still values entrepreneurial behavior.”

[Panel is over.]

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik